Friday, June 24, 2016

Manzanar - Symbol Of Dislocation

In preparation for a Natural Weekend in the Owens Valley and Yosemite, here is a brief history of the town of Manzanar, California.

Manzanar is located in the Owens Valley, just down the valley from Bishop, California.  As you can see from the picture in Bishop below, it has incredible natural beauty with the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and the Inyo Mountains to the east.  It is the high desert - Manzanar itself is 3,700 feet above sea level but the mountains on either side rise to over 14,000 feet. So the valley itself is quite deep even though way above sea level.

But Manzanar's history is a story of displacement. It was originally settled by the Mono Indians in late prehistoric times. They were eventually displaced from Manzanar by miners in the 1840's as part of the California Gold Rush, although they still remained in Owens Valley. But competition from farmers and cattlemen that had moved into the area to sustain the mining towns eventually ended in war, with the most of Mono being moved to the San Sebastian Reservation in 1863 and the remaining fighters finally defeated in 1867. The first displacement was over.

By the early 1900s, the growing city of Los Angeles and its investors, desperate for water, began buying the water rights of Owens Valley, mostly through deceitful and underhanded methods, and began diverting water from the Owens Valley to LA.  This is part of the story told in the movie "Chinatown".  By the 1920s, the local farming and mining community was sabotaging the aqueduct, dynamiting sections of it numerous times. But the diversion of water eventually devastated the Owens Lake ecosystem - the lake itself ran dry in by the end of the decade.  Without water, the mining, farming, and cattle industries all died and the town of Manzanar was essentially abandoned. This was the second displacement.

When the US entered World War II and Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese Americans, Manzanar was selected as one of the first 10 "relocation centers" as they were euphemistically called, primarily because of its remoteness. By July, 1942, over 10,000 Japanese were held captive there, in less than ideal conditions. When the war ended in 1945, the camp was closed and the internees were free to go. They were given $25 to send them on their way but no transportation - they had to take care of that themselves. But many had nowhere to go having been uprooted from their prior lives. These remaining internees were then forcibly removed from the camp. Over the course of the 2 plus years of the camp, 146 internees lost their lives. An interesting side note is the story of Ralph Lazo, an American of Mexican and Irish dissent, who was so incensed by the immorality of internment that he himself voluntarily joined his Japanese American friends when they were rounded up and sent to Manzanar. No one ever questioned his nationality or why he was interned and he remained there for over 2 years. This was then the final strange double dislocation - once into Manzanar and then out again.

Today, Manzanar is National Historic Site - a deserted reminder of the internment of Japanese Americans but also a symbol of the displacement of all who lived there.

I had never heard of Manzanar until we actually drove by there and saw the guard tower of the camp. It is incredible story of how institutional power can destroy so much and yet the natural beauty of the place still remarkably remains.

DA Does Not Want To Ruin Football Players By Actually Prosecuting Their Crime

Please tell me when exactly did college sports players became immune from prosecution. Was this another crazy Supreme Court decision? Or is it just an unwritten law?

On Wednesday, the District Attorney in Monroe, Louisiana admitted that he did not go forward with the prosecution of two Alabama football players on drug and weapons possession charges because he did not want "to ruin the lives of two young men who have spent their adolescence and their teenage years working and sweating while we were all home in the air conditioning". I guess I can see letting them off on the drug charge since it was just marijuana, but it does seem a little concerning that they were in possession of a handgun that was reported stolen in Alabama. You'd think the DA might be interested in finding out how stolen merchandise got across state lines into his state, but I guess not.

This follows on the heels of the Baylor football scandal and the ridiculous six-month sentence give to a rapist at Stanford where the father of this swimmer asked the court not to be too harsh just for "20 minutes of action." And too many other incidents that are too frequent to document.

Where do they find a DA who thinks like this. I guess I could understand covering up for Alabama football players if this happened in Alabama. But this is Louisiana - obviously this guy is not an LSU fan. What a joke.

Supreme Court Decision Allows Police To Use Illegal Stops

I've meant to write about the outrageous Supreme Court decision this week that strips away some our Fourth Amendment rights to improper search and seizure. Basically, the Court ruled that you can be stopped illegally but, if you happen to have an outstanding warrant, any evidence gleaned from that illegal stop would still be admissible in court.  The case revolved around a police officer who was occasionally monitoring a house for "suspicious drug activity". Although he did not see when a man named Edward Streiff entered the house, he decided to stop and question him when he left the house. Mr. Streiff was not acting suspiciously and there was clearly no reason to stop him. After getting Streiff's personal information, he did a routine check and found that Strieff had an outstanding warrant and promptly arrested him. A subsequent search of Streiff found some methamphetamines.

Since there was no real reason to stop Streiff, the methamphetamine evidence should have been thrown out because it was the result of an illegal stop. Incredibly, however, the Court ruled 5-3 that the officer had just made "good-faith mistakes" and the evidence was valid. Justice Thomas wrote that since  there was "no indication that this unlawful stop was part of any systemic or recurrent police misconduct", it was, in fact, OK.  His very opinion indicates that it was an unlawful stop but apparently we should just ignore that because the office didn't really mean it. He goes on to say that we shouldn't worry about police taking advantage of this ruling by making unlawful stops in the hope that there might be an outstanding warrant because "[s]uch wanton conduct would expose police to civil liability". Has he not heard of "stop and frisk"! As, Kevin Drum rightly notes, "This willful exercise in ivory tower fantasy is breathtaking. Does anyone seriously believe that Officer Fackrell just made an innocent mistake?"

Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg had ringing dissents that actually were grounded in the real world. I will let their words speak for themselves:

"The Court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.  Do not be soothed by the opinion’s technical language: This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants—even if you are doing nothing wrong. If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant. Because the Fourth Amendment should prohibit, not permit, such misconduct, I dissent."

They continue:

"The Court sees things differently.  To the Court, the fact that a warrant gives an officer cause to arrest a person severs the connection between illegal policing and the resulting discovery of evidence. This is a remarkable proposition: The mere existence of a warrant not only gives an officer legal cause to arrest and search a person, it also forgives an officer who, with no knowledge of the warrant at all, unlawfully stops that person on a whim or hunch...But the Fourth Amendment does not tolerate an officer’s unreasonable searches and seizures just because he did not know any better.  Even officers prone to negligence can learn from courts that exclude illegally obtained evidence.  Indeed, they are perhaps the most in need of the education, whether by the judge’s opinion, the prosecutor’s future guidance, or an updated manual on criminal procedure.  If the officers are in doubt about what the law requires, exclusion gives them an 'incentive to err on the side of constitutional behavior'."

Finally, Sotomayor continues on her own in a description of real-world police power:

"Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more.  This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact.  That justification must provide specific reasons why the officer suspected you were breaking the law, but it may factor in your ethnicity, where you live, what you were wearing, and how you behaved. The officer does not even need to know which law you might have broken so long as he can later point to any possible infraction—even one that is minor, unrelated, or ambiguous.  The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal.  The officer may next ask for your “consent” to inspect your bag or purse without telling you that you can decline. Regardless of your answer, he may order you to stand “helpless, perhaps facing a wall with [your] hands raised.”  If the officer thinks you might be dangerous, he may then “frisk” you for weapons.  This involves more than just a pat down. As onlookers pass by, the officer may “‘feel with sensitive fingers every portion of [your] body. A thorough search [may] be made of [your] arms and armpits, waistline and back, the groin and area about the testicles, and entire surface of the legs down to the feet.’”  The officer’s control over you does not end with the stop. If the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail for doing nothing more than speeding, jaywalking, or “driving [your] pickup truck . . . with [your] 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter . . . without [your] seatbelt fastened.”  At the jail, he can fingerprint you, swab DNA from the inside of your mouth, and force you to “shower with a delousing agent” while you “lift [your] tongue, hold out [your] arms, turn around, and lift [your] genitals.”   Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the “civil death” of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check.  And, of course, if you fail to pay bail or appear for court, a judge will issue a warrant to render you “arrestable on sight” in the future. This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. As the Justice Department notes, many innocent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches.  The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner.  But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.  For generations, black and brown parents have given their children “the talk”— instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them. By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time.  It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged. We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.”  They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere.  They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but. I dissent."

Thank you Sonya! The swing vote in this case was Justice Bryer who joined Thomas, Alito, Roberts, and Kenndy. What exactly was he thinking?

Ryan Reveals Obamacare Replacement "Plan" - It's The Same Old Story

Earlier, I wrote about Paul Ryan's nothing-burger of an anti-poverty plan which incredibly included rolling back the requirement of financial advisers to act in the best interests of their clients. It was hard to see how that would help people in poverty, but maybe Ryan has a different financial threshold for poverty than the rest of us. As a side note, overriding President Obama and rolling back this very rule was the vote that Ryan scheduled last night as Democrats were demanding a vote on gun control. It was not the most politically adroit move, especially since the vote failed. Ryan must really love those Wall Street donations, so he keeps on pushing the issue.

But I digress. This week Ryan also released his long-anticipated plan for replacing Obamacare. We've been waiting for this with baited breath for about six years now. In any case, it wasn't really a plan - it was just an outline of what Republicans would do. And it contained the usual bromides that every Republican health plan has had for the last decade which I will tackle one by one with the resulting effect in parentheses:
  • Allow Americans to buy insurance across state lines. (Create useless, lowest-common-denominator coverage at the highest possible price.)
  • Provide a refundable tax credit to those who don't get coverage from employers or a government program. (Provide a subsidy to buy the useless coverage above.)
  • Expand health savings accounts (which will get wiped out with a catastrophic illness.)
  • Create "high-risk" pools for those with pre-existing conditions (with no limitations on how much those plans would cost so they would be prohibitively expensive as they were before Obamacare.)
Ryan has added in few other kickers this time - raising the Medicare and full Social Security eligibility age to 67; work requirements for able-bodied Medicaid adults; and repealing the Obamacare requirement for every citizen to obtain health insurance.  This is just a continuing example of the post-policy mode that Republicans are in - all these ideas have been discredited long ago, but the GOP keeps on trotting them out like they are shiny and new.

Of course, there were a couple of key things missing from this "plan", as is the usual case when dealing with a Ryan proposal. There was no analysis of how much all this would actually cost. But more importantly there was no analysis of how many people would actually lose the coverage that they currently have now under Obamacare. And that's probably for a very good reason. If they actually put that number out there, it would make this non-starter of a plan totally dead in the water.

Johnson Thinks Economy Collapse Below France Is "Glorious Opportunity"

In just a few hours after the Brexit vote, Britain's economy lost so much value that it fell below France to become the 6th largest economy in the world. Boris Johnson calls this a "glorious opportunity" - read his whole statement, it is almost Trump-like in its deceptions. Could the irony be any greater...

Delaying Brexit By Not Invoking Article 50

The next battleground in the British vote to leave the EU could very well be Parliament - this referendum is not legally binding in any way. I do not believe that Cameron invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty before he "resigned" and that is the specific act that triggers the negotiations about leaving. It is certainly possible, especially when you see the disaster for the British Pound and stock market, that he could put the question before Parliament for a vote and hope to hold a majority there. Cameron has insisted he would trigger Article 50 immediately after the vote but I have not read anywhere that he has actually done that at this point. And it could be that separation talks could begin informally without Article 50 being invoked. As the disaster that the exit vote has created for the British economy and the future of the UK, it is possible that the cries for delaying the actual invocation of Article 50 will grow. Cameron, despite what he has said, could then take the case to Parliament, ignoring the will of the people. But he's not running again so that may not be a problem for him. Or he could just hold off on invoking Article 50 and let the new PM take that specific act. In that case, the election of the new PM would start this battle all over again. Admittedly, both of these look like long-shots right now. But you do have to wonder, when Britons see how much they have lost in just this one day, how many of them would like to take a breath and reconsider.

Update: it is still unclear whether Cameron has invoked Article 50 yet, but Corbyn says he should do it immediately.

Update #2: A BBC report says the Cameron specifically said he would NOT invoke Article 50 in his resignation speech. I'm guessing he means that he will leave it to his successor. Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission tells UK to essentially get on with leaving.

Update #3: Is Gibraltar going too? Spain calls for "joint control" of the Rock.

The Domino Theory and Brexit - Re-posted

To give you a sense of what might happen now (which nobody really know), I am reblogging this post that I put up in the middle of May, discussing the repercussion of the Brexit vote:

For those of you old enough to remember, the Domino Theory was one of the reasons that we ended up in the quagmire of Vietnam.  The theory basically was that if Vietnam fell, then all the surrounding countries in Southeast Asia would also soon fall to the Communists, like dominoes. And I guess what I am proposing when it comes to the British voting to exit the European Union, Brexit as it is called, is that it will be the first domino to fall.  The referendum is up for a vote on June 23, a little over a month away, and the current polling is pretty much all over the place - Reuters shows "stay" up by 15 points while others show the vote neck and neck. The debate has split the Conservative party wide open, with former London Mayor Boris Johnson, a future PM hopeful, leading the "leave" faction and current PM David Cameron heading the "stay" camp. But for the purposes of this post, let's assume the "leave" vote prevails and the UK ends up leaving the EU. 

In 2014, Scotland held a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom which lost by a 10 point margin, 55%-45%.  The referendum was really a launch pad for the Scottish National Party (SNP) which, in less than a decade, has managed to displace Labor as the dominant force in Scottish politics. In an ironic twist, one of the arguments made against Scottish independence was that the country would lose its membership in the EU.  Scottish support for the EU is higher than the rest of the UK and the SNP has said that it would put forward a second referendum on independence if the UK voted to leave. Scotland has long felt they were the forgotten stepchild when it comes to policies made in London and now the country no longer has a strong voice in either the Labor or Conservative parties that make up the majority of Parliament.  In addition, Scotland's economy has come under pressure as the price of oil has fallen through the floor.  Any vote for independence today would be quite close and the traditional powers of Labor and Conservatives that both opposed Scottish devolution would have less influence.

Northern Ireland also presents some potential problems if the UK leaves the EU.  Again, the country is much more pro-Europe than the rest of England and the EU is Northern Ireland's largest trading partner, much of it with Ireland.  In theory, a border would have to be maintained between Ireland and Northern Ireland, restricting the flow of trade and people between those two countries. The creation of  that border would be seen as essentially a British decision and could lead to increased calls for reunification with Ireland in order to stay in the EU, adding another layer of resentment to the country's long internal struggle.

Finally, the departure of the UK from the EU will essentially break the taboo associated with an exit. It will not be long before you hear Eurosceptics in Greece, France, Spain and elsewhere point to the UK as an example of what could be done. In Finland, Parliament is scheduled to debate leaving the Euro this year and similar debates are in the offing in Denmark and Austria. And there is no telling what would happen when a far right party gets control of government in one of the eastern bloc member states. But you have to feel, eventually, one country will vote to leave and then the floodgates would really be open.

None of these events would happen instantly - it would be a long, difficult process in uncharted waters for any of these countries.  As opposed to the EU, leaving or, for that matter, joining the Euro is an especially complex, arduous, and disruptive task with no certainty of the result. But the door would certainly be open if they chose to take it. Now, I happen to believe that the "stay" camp will eke out a victory and all this speculation will be for naught.  Cameron has managed to lead a charmed political life, squeaking through when he has too.  But, either way, the Brexit question will be a win/win for the Conservative point of view in England. If they leave, the more nativist Conservatives will take over; and if they stay, the UK economy will contract again and Cameron's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne can use that excuse to continue his push for increased privatization and his attack on the social safety net in Britain.  But, if the UK leaves and the dominoes fall, David Cameron may well be remembered as the man responsible for the dissolution of the UK and the break-up the European Union.

Cameron Resigns

David Cameron resigns, saying, "I do not think it would be right for me to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination."  Isn't that what the captain of the Exxon Valdez said when he grounded the ship and caused one of the worst environmental disasters ever?

Having willingly led Britain into this destruction, he just rides off into the sunset. Remember, it was his choice, his idea, to have this referendum; it was not something that ever had to happen. But he needed to keep his right flank in line and to somehow reduce the power of UKIP in order to win re-election and the referendum was how he did that. David Cameron put his own political fortunes before the well-being of the country and he lost. And now Britons will pay for his selfishness for years to come. Thanks David.

Scotland and Northern Ireland voted strongly to stay in the EU and they are already making noises about leaving the UK to re-join the EU. And you can be sure that there will be another country taking this same vote on the European mainland sometime soon. David Cameron could very well go down in history as the man who precipitated the dissolution of the United Kingdom and the European Union. What a legacy.

Britain Votes To Blow Itself Up

Goodbye Europe. Goodbye David Cameron. Goodbye Scotland; and maybe say goodbye to Northern Ireland, too.

By a 51-48 margin, the leave camp won the vote. David Cameron has resigned. Scotland and Northern Ireland start to talk about leaving Britain to join EU. British pound and stock market get clobbered. World markets will be incredibly volatile. And who knows what the future of the EU will be now.

David Cameron risked the future of Britain just to hold off the right wing of his party. He lost and now Britain will too.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Trump is Frying Poor Kevin Drum's Brain

I've done a pretty good job of trying to avoid commenting and analyzing the daily atrocities that come from Donald Trump. It is just too exhausting and every analysis ends the same way - he is lying and he doesn't have a clue what he's talking about. But some people just can't handle it. Take, for example, poor Kevin Drum. Trump has became the drug that is frying his brain.  Have a read:

Here is Donald Trump talking to an evangelical audience on Tuesday about how he raised his children:
I always tell people, “No drugs, no alcohol, no cigarettes.” And I add to some — if it’s appropriate: I say, if they go to church and if they start at a young age, that’s a tremendous asset.... I went to Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica.... It was like, you go to Sunday school, you have to do that.... Today, I don’t think it’s so automatic. And maybe we can get back into a position where it’s automatic.
I know I'll never get an answer, but I have to ask: Did any of Trump's kids go to Sunday school back in the day? Does Barron go to Sunday school now? Does Trump ever attend church? How about his grown kids? Just asking.
You might have noticed that this item is from yesterday. So was the picture of Trump with Jerry Falwell Jr. My post this morning about Utah v. Strieff is two days late. What's going on with that? Well, you know how your inbox can get filled up and you just get behind on everything? That's how I feel. My brain is hopelessly backed up and I'm behind on everything. Sometime tomorrow I'll finally figure out what happened today.
I blame Trump for this. He's brought a level of gobsmacking idiocy to the news that worms its way into my brain and won't let go. I get obsessed with what he's blathering about. Did he really say that? And people believed it? There has to be something more to it. But what? Has our national bullshit detector suddenly gone pear shaped? Why? How is it that 45 percent of the country apparently doesn't realize that he's basically just a talented used car salesman? It makes no sense. There's no way that anyone with even the slightest experience of real life could fail to see that he lies practically every time he opens his mouth. That he can't be trusted to do even the smallest thing he promises. What's going on? WTF. IS. GOING. ON?
This is my brain on Trump. It wants answers. But there are no answers. Just endless, endless spinning. It is trapped in a world gone haywire.

Future Is Fast Approaching For Renewable Energy

I wanted to highlight a couple of items today that show just how quickly the transformation of our energy use is occurring.  The first item is from a team of scientists in South Korea who have created solar cells that are thinner than a human hair. With solar cells this size and this flexible, solar technology could be built into virtually everything - clothes, buildings, roads, vehicles - the possibilities are endless. Of course, it will still be years before this technology becomes an actual, affordable product. But this is what the future will look like.

On the other hand, in Sweden, there is a pilot program that is actually working today and it is an "electric highway". Essentially it is the old tram system at work. Overhead wires provide power to electric trucks along a 13 mile stretch of highway that is being used as a test. The wires help increase the length of time between charges for these electric vehicles. When not running electrically, these trucks operate as a hybrid using biofuel. Sweden hopes this combination will help it have a fossil fuel free transport fleet in 15 years.

It is these kind of innovations that are pushing the use of renewable energy forward. The percentage of renewable energy produced grows every year - in the US it is already up to 18%. And it will only continue to rise as new technologies start to be delivered.

Jury Rules Led Zep Created Stairway To Heaven

A copyright infringement case that had been brought against Led Zeppelin about the origin of the rock classic "Stairway to Heaven"' has been decided in the band's favor. The case was brought by the trust of Randy Wolfe alleging that the opening riff of the song was actually taken from the song "Taurus" that Wolfe wrote for the band Spirit. Although the trust was able to show that Led Zeppelin did have access to that song way back in 1968, the jury ruled in Led Zeppelin's favor. It was going to be a pretty tough case to win as relying on aging rocker's memories of what happened in the late 1960s and 1970s is always going to get a pretty foggy result.

House Sit-In Created Bad Optics For House GOP

The optics last night for Paul Ryan and House Republicans were pretty terrible. Thankfully for them, they made sure it all happened in the middle of the night but there were still plenty of cameras rolling even at that hour.

After Democrats began their sit-in to force a gun control vote, Paul Ryan adjourned the House and then petulantly had C-Span turn off their cameras so as not to show the Democratic revolt.  With all the technology available today, that kind of censorship move never works and soon the Dems were live-streaming on Periscope.

Then, at 10pm, Ryan gaveled the House back into order so that a vote to overturn the new Labor Department rule that investment advisers must act in the best interests of the client. Previously, those advisers could recommend investment products that actually made more money for the advisor as long as they were "similar" to the most appropriate product. Of course, that may have meant that the client made less money because of a higher fee structure. So, Ryan and the Republicans chose exactly the moment when the focus was on gun control to actually vote on what is essentially a gift to Wall Street - not the best optics, I would say.

Later in the evening, around 3am, the House also passed a bill authorizing over $600 million in funding to combat the Zika virus. This was one-third of the amount that the White House had requested and a little more than half of what the Senate has already authorized. It allocates no new funds but takes existing funds from the fight against the Ebola virus and from some Obamacare funds as well. And, because it's Republicans, the bill blocks any of the funds in the measure from going to Planned Parenthood for birth control services for women at risk of becoming infected with the virus. Of course, we are already at the end of July, so none of this money is going to do anything to deal with the spread of the virus this summer, but I guess the Republicans don't feel any sense of urgency on that count. Senate Democrats are already threatening to veto a compromise bill between the House and Senate and the White House has issued a veto threat as well.  Having done their damage, Ryan adjourned the House until after the July 4th holiday.

All in all, a pretty horrendous night politically for House Republicans. And there is no doubt that Democrats will keep the pressure on regarding gun control.

Supreme Court Blocks Immigration Executive Action

In another decision announced this morning, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that blocked the Obama administration's executive action on immigration. The administration had sought to shield minors as well as parents of citizens from deportation. A number of states led by Texas challenged these actions as a violation of statutes and the Constitution. The administration argued that these actions were well within the purview of the executive's administration of law and that the states themselves had no standing to even challenge the action.

The 4-4 decision means that the lower court ruling will stand. It also highlights the importance of the Republicans unprecedented actions in not giving Merrick Garland a hearing as well as the importance of the election this fall. If Hillary wins and Republicans eventually confirm a ninth justice, this case will probably come before the Court again and that lower court ruling will be overturned.

Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action

In a 4-3 decision, with Justice Kagan recusing herself, the Supreme Court voted to uphold the University of Texas at Austin affirmative action plan.  About 75% of an incoming class is accepted based on a blind, "race-neutral" criterion.  The remaining 25% of acceptances are based on a "holistic" review of the applicant with race being one of the factors considered.  The challenge was to the consideration of race for those 25%.

This is clearly one of the first huge cases that reflects the shift of the balance of power on the Court away from the conservatives and to the more liberal justices.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Now Ireland Advances With Stunning Win At Euro 2016

And now it's Ireland advancing to the round of 16 as they score a late winner against Italy moments after Belgium went up 1-0 on Sweden. Those two one goal victories mean that Ireland advances as a 3rd place team. What an incredible afternoon at Euro 2016!

House Democrats Sit-In To Force Gun Control Votes

Taking a cue from their Senate counterpart Chris Murphy, Democrats in the House, led by the indefatigable John Lewis, have staged a sit-in demanding a vote an sensible gun control legislation. Speaker Ryan has gaveled the House into recess and has C-Span turn off the cameras. The Democrats seemed determined so the ball is really still in Ryan's court. It's nice to see Democrats holding Republicans feet to the fire on this issue.

Iceland Advance in Euro 2016

Iceland, a nation of just over 320,000 people has just moved on to the round of 16 in Euro 2016 with a 2-1 win over Austria. It has to be one of the great sports stories of the year. Sadly, Iceland's win eliminates Albania, another team that was a great story in the tournament this year.

Brexit Prediction

Well, we are just hours away from Britain's vote on leaving the European Union and I guess as an uninformed blogger it is my duty to venture a prediction on the result.  Markets are clearly betting that the UK will stay while current polls suggest it is a virtual tie with a pretty high number of undecideds. My feeling is that those undecided voters have pretty much made up their mind to stay but just aren't saying so. So I would say that the "remain" vote will win by a pretty significant margin, perhaps by 6% or 7%. This will be another black eye for British pollsters. It will also leave a weakened David Cameron and a divided Conservative party. And that is about the best result possible.

Merrick Garland And Post-Policy Republicans

Merrick Garland received the highest rating possible from the ABA with one anonymous legal mind saying he might "be the perfect human being" in his evaluation. You remember Merrick Garland, don't you. Yes, he was nominated by President Obama to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court way back in mid-March of this year and he has yet to have a hearing in the Senate and he probably never will as Republicans have vowed to wait until after the election to consider his nomination.  In response to this ABA recommendation, Republicans emailed that both President Obama and Vice President Biden tried to filibuster the selection of Samuel Alito, who also had the highest recommendation from the ABA.  Do you notice the difference there? Obama and Biden were actually able to vote against Alito - Republicans won't even allow a vote when it comes to Garland.

We need to keep reminding ourselves of how unprecedented this action is, as Republicans break the traditional norms of governing once again. Nancy LeTourneau over at Washington Monthly has a great post today titled "What Happens When One Party Doesn’t Care About Governing?". I suggest you read the entire piece. As LeTourneau notes, Republicans quietly admit that they believe that making government not work actually redounds to their advantage. They have no new policy proposals just the same old songs - tax cuts for the rich and spending cuts for social programs. There is no point in negotiating with them because a negotiation implies that both sides gain something and both sides give something. Republicans are not interested in that - they would like to win but it's more important that Democrats never win, even if that would be a win for Republicans too. They would rather lose just to make sure Democrats lose. We've seen it constantly throughout Obama's term. There was clearly a deal to be made with Obama's "grand bargain" that would have raised taxes and cut spending. But when the decision had to be made, Republicans could not allow Obama to "win" on taxes even if it meant giving up far more in spending cuts than they had ever proposed.

And it is the same with Merrick Garland - he is eminently qualified and probably a center-left addition to the Supreme Court. But Republicans cannot allow that "win" for Obama so they tear up 200 years of history in the meaning of "advise and consent" in the Constitution - they simply won't do their job. For most of us, not doing our job will result in being fired. It's time to do that to Republicans.

Gun Makers Rely On Assault Rifle and Concealed Carry Sales

I have already written about the fact that, although gun sales have increased, the number of households owning guns has actually decreased over the last 20 years or so, indicating that many current buyers are already existing gun owners. And an article today shows just how reliant gun manufacturers are on two particular types of guns - assault rifles and small, high-capacity handguns that are typically used as concealed-carry weapons. Smith & Wesson reported a 31% increase in all rifle sales and you can be sure that much of that increase was related to assault weapons.

However, as the Supreme Court made clear in a ruling earlier this week, an assault weapons ban will pass constitutional muster. The ruling upheld bans in Connecticut and New York and, with the grip that the NRA currently has on Congress, it is in the states where gun control is more likely to succeed at present.  And with a more liberal Supreme Court a certainty, it is quite probable that restrictions on these high capacity magazines will also be ruled constitutional. Cases like this will be important because one of the NRA talking points is always about the constitutionality of gun ownership as though it applies to every conceivable type of weapon out there. Being able to point to the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled that some restrictions on gun ownership are constitutional changes the frame of the argument toward what restrictions are legal and effective.

Breaking the NRA's grip on Congress will not be easy and will probably be a long time coming. But these are initial steps down that road.

Yellen Retreats Even Further From Rate Hikes In Testimony

How quickly things can change. Before the May unemployment report came out on June 3, Fed officials seemed to be poised to raise interest rates in June and, if not, then in July.  That would be followed by at least one more increase later on this year.  Well all that changed with one of the weakest employment reports in months and the Fed held interest rates steady after their meeting last week, although Fed Chair Yellen did make a half-hearted attempt to keep a July increase alive while focusing on the fall as a more likely candidate.

This week, Yellen make the second of her semi-annual reports to Congress, yesterday testifying to the Senate Banking Committee and today to the House Financial Services Committee. Her testimony yesterday was downright dovish, indicating concerns that growth may not return to "normal" levels for much longer than anticipated which would require an even more extended period of low interest rates.  The urgency to raise rates that had permeated Fed statements before June were now gone as was the confidence in a faster-growing economy. Based on her testimony, it would seem that there might be only one rate hike in the offing for later this year, but even that seems in doubt. Of course, there will be lots of new data between now and then but it does seem as though the unfounded desire that some members of the Fed has to get rates back to a "normal" level has dissipated.

This will be another blow to the Fed's credibility - the December rate hike was a disaster and, despite market expectations of continuing low growth and inflation, the Fed keeps on talking up rate hikes only to have to back off when the data does not support it.  Hopefully, with this latest retreat, a chastened Fed will actually wait until growth and inflation actually get above target before they talk up rate hikes again.

California's Last Nuclear Plant To Be Replaced With Renewable Energy

In a proposal announced yesterday, California may close its last remaining nuclear power plant and replace the power lost with renewable energy sources. Pacific Gas & Electric (PGE) has agreed to shut down the Diablo Canyon Power Plant when its license expires in 2025. In return, PGE has agreed to have at least 55% of its energy produced come from renewables by 2031. The state has already mandated that utilities reach a 50% renewables level by 2030.

The Diablo Canyon plant has been a source of concern almost since the day it was built - it is located close to a number of fault lines and it uses ocean water to cool its two reactors. So, closing the plant will eliminate the possibilities of a Fukushima-like disaster. And, with the costs of renewable energy dropping substantially as technology improves, it is quite possible that the plant will actually shut down well before the 2025 date in the agreement.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Argentina, Dominant, Leads 2-0 At Halftime of Copa America Semifinal

Halftime in big USA-Argentina match in the semifinals at the Copa America and Argentina is like men among boys.  They are faster, more skilled, pressure the ball on defense, and keep possession on offense. I would bet that they had possession for 40 out of the first 45 minutes. Seriously. The great Messi assisted on the first goal and struck an indescribably accurate free kick to give Argentina a 2-0 lead. It would be a miracle for the US to come back and win this game considering how thoroughly they have been dominated in the first half. And having to throw guys forward to score goals is only going to expose them to a deadly Argentinian counterattack.

Stop Killing Captive Animals Because Of Human Negligence And Stupidity

It is time for the shooting of animals who are already in captivity to stop.  All these incidents are inevitably the result of human stupidity or misbehavior. There have been numerous examples of humans entering enclosures for wild animals and, more often than not, the animals will be the ones who have to pay with their lives when this occurs.

Earlier this year, it was the silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo that had to be killed as opposed to tranquilized when a child somehow slipped into its enclosure. And today, a jaguar that was used as prop in an Olympic torch ceremony in the Brazilian city of Manaus escaped from his handlers and was shot and killed despite being tranquilized. Here is a picture of the jaguar at the ceremony shortly before it was murdered.

So, despite being chained and used, apparently, illegally as a living symbol of the yellow jaguar that is the mascot of the Rio Olympics, this poor animal still had to be killed when its handlers somehow let it escape. Hopefully, someone will be held criminally responsible for this murder but I somehow doubt that will happen.

These animals are all held in captivity but still must die due to the recklessness and incompetence of humans. Somehow, this has to stop. I don't have all the answers but when humans enter areas reserved for these animals, it is only right that the humans should be at risk, not the animal.

Scottish Farmer Stands In Solidarity With All Those Trump Insults

Scottish farmer who has fought appropriation of local land for a Trump golf course has raised a Mexican flag in solidarity and protest on land that he and 100 others own (in order to make it difficult for Trump to get the land) near a bunker on the course that Trump will visit this weekend.

"The point of the flag is to show solidarity with the Mexicans and every other group that Trump has decried, derided, insulted, and tried to marginalise,” said the farmer, David Milne. Obviously, Trump has an incredible ability to annoy people everywhere he goes.

GOP Weakness in California Gives Dems A Shot To Take House

Here's another reason why the House of Representatives might actually be in play for Democrats this fall. In California, there is no gubernatorial election this year and, because only the top two vote getters in the open primary advance to the general election, the one Senate race will be a contest between two Democrats, causing nearly two-thirds of Republicans to say they won't bother to cast a vote in that race.  In addition, Donald Trump is currently polling somewhere in the mid-30s in that state. So with no statewide race to interest Republicans and a Presidential race that is a foregone conclusion, Republicans only chance of their vote having any influence will be in House and local races. It is hard to imagine just how hard it will be for those local candidates to actually get out the Republican vote.

Warning signs were already there as Darrell Issa survived a surprisingly close primary challenge from a relatively unknown Democratic challenger. Issa's hold on this seat in California's 49th District was thought to be impregnable but Doug Applegate, a retired Marine colonel, lost by only 6,200 votes which equated to a 6 point loss. Even more telling was that Issa only received 51% of the vote, hardly a resounding vote of confidence.  Issa pointed to the high turnout of Democratic voters as part of the reason for his closer-than-expected margin of victory. But the same dynamic will probably be in play again in the general election which should keep even this supposedly safe Republican House seat in play. 

With the current weakness of the Republican party in California and the potential implosion of the Trump candidacy, it would not be surprising to see a number of shocking upsets of supposedly safe Republican House seats. Combine that with a large Clinton win across the country and it just might be possible for Democrats to re-take the House. Yes, it's still a longshot but it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

Trump's Poor Fundraising Shocks GOP And Makes Revolt More Likely

Donald Trump's disastrous Federal Election Commission (FEC) report that was filed yesterday will only increase the paranoia of the rank-and-file Republican establishment and raise the possibility that Trump will actually be tossed aside at the July convention. The paltry $1.2 million on hand compares to Hillary Clinton's war chest of nearly $42 million. And when you look at the totals raised by the candidate, party, and PACs combined, the results are even more shocking.

That is nearly a 5-to-1 advantage for Hillary's campaign. Even more distressing is the pathetic $3.1 million that Trump apparently raised last month. Again, for comparison, Hillary raised over $26 million for the same time period.

In addition, to these potentially crippling financial disadvantages, the organization that Trump has on the ground is also woefully inadequate. According to the filing, Trump has only 69 people on the payroll, compared to the nearly 700 that Hillary has.  All this means that Trump will be more and more reliant on the Republican National Committee (RNC) for money and resources to run his campaign. And every dollar that the RNC has to use because of Trump's lack of funds and organization is one less dollar they can spend protecting vulnerable Republicans in the House and Senate.

Possibly adding to some Republicans' anger will be the fact that Trump apparently paid over $1 million to Trump-owned enterprises for campaign expenses. Now campaign finance law requires companies to charge fair market value for goods and services that are provided to candidates, so these are all legitimate expenses.  But for those #NeverTrump Republicans, this may just look like Trump is running another scam. And one other fascinating tidbit from Trump's filing was a $35,000 payment to a firm named Draper Sterling. I'm sure most of you recognize that as the names of the two leading characters in the classic Mad Men series. It remains unclear what the work was for but the leading players involved have already been targeted in a complaint filed with the FEC in May. Read the whole, fascinating story.

This FEC report will put even more pressure on Trump and the calls for a convention coup will only get louder. State and local Republican operatives will look at these number in horror and realize they may essentially be on their own this November. As I noted in an earlier post, the Trump campaign has only a few weeks to start showing it is capable of running a real election campaign - putting together a ground operation, raising money, and possibly even having to regain some ground in the polls. Otherwise, the July convention could turn into a total free-for-all.

Tom Perez For Vice President

I've already stated my opposition to Elizabeth Warren as Hillary Clinton's running mate if only because progressives need her strong voice in the Senate and Democrats cannot afford to lose any Senate vote, even for a short period of time.  The latter rationale is why I would refuse to consider any current Senator for Vice President - the Democratic hold on the Senate is just too important to take the chance on an appointee or special election to hold an existing seat. Because of the Democrats' distinct lack of governorships and weakness in state houses around the country, the remaining choices are actually surprisingly slim.

Right now, I am really leaning toward current Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. Admittedly, he brings no state with him, but that kind of candidate has become increasingly rare anyway. And sure, his only electoral post was to the Montgomery County Council in Maryland but it's going to be pretty hard for Republicans to go after him on that score considering their own Presidential candidate has NEVER held elected office.

His positives with progressives are enormous. He has pursued voting rights, civil rights, and police misconduct cases in his work in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. As Labor Secretary he has supported the fight for $15 minimum wage, paid leave, and unions frankly love him. He instituted the new overtime rule that extended overtime pay to millions of workers; he has been involved in pursuing wage theft; and he was instrumental in negotiating an end to the Verizon strike which was a huge victory for the unions. In fact, when rumors surfaced that he was being considered to replace Eric Holder as Attorney General, unions revolted, demanding that he stay in place at Labor.

Another positive is that Republicans apparently despise him - a National Review article had the headline "Tom Perez: The Leftist Radical Who Could Be Hillary Clinton's Running Mate". This kind of language is a rallying cry for Bernie Sanders' young supporters who are not afraid to be identified as "socialist" and "leftist".  Added to his work in civil rights and labor, Perez could really bring a lot of Sanders' voters on board despite having endorsed Hillary way back in December.

The final positive for Perez is his Dominican heritage and his fluency in Spanish. Trump's racist rhetoric has already increased Hispanic political activism. Getting those citizens out to vote will not only be imperative for Hillary but could also be the tipping point in many down-ballot races, shifting the balance of power in Congress to the Democrats. Perez has shown his willingness and ability to rally the faithful and attack Trump directly. And, once again, the Democratic party would be making history with the first Hispanic on a major party ticket. What better indication would there be of the inclusiveness of our country and as a signal to the rest of the world than to have a woman and Hispanic taking their oaths of office in January next year.

New Poll Eases Brexit Fears But Vote Still Very Tight

New polls showing that the "remain" camp is leading in the British vote to leave the European Union have fuelled a rally in the UK stock market, the British pound, and in markets around the world. A Survation telephone poll showed a 3 point lead for those who wished to stay, 45% to 42%. This poll was taken last Friday and Saturday in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox, who supported staying.  Other polls taken days before that murder showed the race to be neck-and-neck with some showing a slight lead for "leave". The Survation poll could indicate a significant number of undecideds right now as only 87% apparently gave a definitive response. The "remain" side has always counted on those late deciders to opt against such a radical change.

Despite the relief of the markets, this vote still remains incredibly tight and turnout could be the deciding factor. In addition, it is very hard to know just how much Jo Cox's murder effected the Survation poll and how much it will still be effecting voters when they enter polling stations on Thursday.

Wage Growth Tracker Increase Will Add To Fed Push For Rate Hike

In another good sign for workers, wage growth is continuing to rise and job switchers are making significant wage gains.  The Atlanta Fed puts out a monthly measure called the Wage Growth Tracker (WGT) and last month's reading for all workers was the highest since 2009. For workers switching jobs, the measure was the highest since December, 2007.  So it looks like we are finally getting near the point where wage growth has resumed its pre-recession levels.  It goes without saying that this will be another indicator to the hawks on the Fed to raise interest rates.

Senate Votes Down All Four Gun Control Measures

Another shameful day in the United States Senate as all four measures regarding gun control could not get the required 60 votes to gain cloture and, therefore, were defeated. Although this was expected, it is hard to believe that some compromise could not have been crafted on this issue. But that just shows the power of the NRA.  I expect that we will see this issue come up again, perhaps even more than once, before the election in November.

Until Democrats get a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, it is going to be up to the individual states to deal with gun control on their own. And some states are doing just that - New York and Connecticut have passed assault weapons bans and California is doing research on gun violence as a public health issue. With the Supreme Court moving to the left and allowing these state restrictions to stand, the Senate is the last stronghold for the NRA and the gun lobby. If and when the Senate falls, the power of the NRA will be well and truly broken.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Welcome to Summer And A Full Strawberry Moon

Welcome to Summer!  Summer officially began at 6:34 PM EDT today.  Coincidentally, this year the summer solstice also coincides with the full "Strawberry Moon" of June which officially occurred at 7:02 AM EDT this morning.  This has not happened since 1967 and won't happen again until 2062. Try to take a look, weather permitting, at the virtually full moon rising a little before 9pm EDT tonight - it should be quite a sight and a great way to start your summer.

Here's a photo I took last night of the Moon with about 40X magnification - Starblast 4.5 telescope, 25mm eyepiece with 2X Barlow with variable polarizing filter.

Trump Campaign Disarray Making Down-Ballot Republicans Very Nervous

I've done my best to avoid blogging about the daily atrocities committed by Donald Trump - I will leave that to others that have much more patience than I. But the complete disarray inside the Trump campaign appears to be staggering.  Other than the Donald's use of free media, there seems to no organization or even an attempt at organization in his campaign at all.

Last week, a Trump rally in Irving, Texas had to be postponed for a few days because the Trump campaign apparently did not ask the Irving police for a permit until the day before the scheduled rally.  The police rejected the request saying they needed at least 48 hours to prepare for such an event. On Friday, the AP reported that the Trump campaign only had 30 paid staffers on the ground across the entire country - that is not even one for each state.  Of course, the Trump campaign says a nationwide campaign infrastructure is unnecessary. Trump senior aide Karen Giorno simply states, "It would be disingenuous and wrongheaded to take a playbook that has been used over and over again. We are creating the playbook". Relying on the Republican National Committee to handle his ground campaign has some significant risks for both Trump and Republicans.  Trump's presidential campaign will be sucking valuable resources away from down-ballot Republicans. And, if it appears that Trump will be a sure loser later this fall, the RNC will simply focus all its efforts on saving the electoral hopes of as many Republicans as they can, leaving the Trump campaign high and dry. Already, even in the red state of Utah, the state chair James Evans is pondering throwing Trump under the bus and saving as many local GOPers as he can.

And finally today, Trump's trusted but caustic campaign adviser Corey Lewandowsi was essentially forced to resign. Apparently, the internal battle between Lewandowski and recently hired campaign consultant Paul Manafort has been epic but, with Lewandoswki out, Manafort should now be able to take full control. But the problem may not be so much to do with the internal dynamics of the campaign but with the candidate himself.  Manafort has a few weeks to bring some coherence to the Trump campaign before the July convention. If he cannot, the cries to dump Trump at the convention will grow louder and louder. Initially, I didn't think that a convention revolt would be possible but we all know how shortsighted and reactionary political operatives can be. With Trump's campaign apparatus virtually non-existent and a total disaster, you can sense a building sense of panic among the rank-and-file GOP establishment. If Manafort can not reasonably reassure them of some cohesion in the campaign before the convention, it could be a wild time in Cleveland in July.

Senate May Do Nothing But Gun Restrictions Are Succeeding

As the Senate heads towards actually voting on a number of gun control measures later this afternoon, Republicans seem to be focused on how people mistakenly on the terrorism watch list will have their Constitutional rights to due process infringed if they are not allowed to buy a gun.  Because of the 60-vote margin required for cloture on all these proposals, it is doubtful that any of the bills will actually pass.

But while the Senate dithers, there is some other surprisingly good news for gun control advocates today. Ever since 1997 when an amendment passed Congress that specifically did not allow the Centers for Disease Control to engage in any research that would "advocate or promote gun control", the NRA and its lackeys in Congress have managed to restrict any substantive research of gun violence as a public health issue. But what can not be done on a federal level, can still be done by the individual states. Last Friday, the California legislature approved a budget allocating $5 million to establish the California Firearm Violence Research Center which will specifically have access to the state's gun violence records and will then be able to pursue valuable research into the public health effects of gun violence and the efficacy of programs to restrict gun violence.  Yes, $5 million is just a drop in the bucket. But at least there will soon be real studies that are backed up by real data when discussing gun control. And California is a large enough state that many of the conclusions of those studies can be broadly applied to the country at large.

In an even more significant development, today the Supreme Court let stand lower court rulings that upheld the assault weapons bans that are in effect in the states of Connecticut and New York. Ever since determining in 2008 (District of Columbia v. Heller) and 2010 (McDonald v. City of Chicago) that there is a constitutional right for a citizen to own a handgun in the home, the Supreme Court has repeatedly denied challenges to subsequent gun restrictions. And, with the emergence of a liberal Court, I would expect that pattern to continue for the foreseeable future.

The expected failure of the Senate to take any meaningful action later today will frustrate and outrage those who favor sensible gun restrictions. And it should. But it also should not blind us to the fact that progress is being made and that the Supreme Court is clearly signaling that sensible restrictions will pass constitutional muster.  Yes, the NRA still has enormous power in the political arena and the progress will be slow and not uniform and probably not enough to please us all. But the tide has clearly turned in favor of reasonable gun restrictions and that can only be good for everyone's health.

Wyoming Transition From Coal To Wind Is A Bellwether

In yet another example of how quickly green energy alternatives are coming online, replacing fossil fuel and particularly coal, The NY Times has a story today about the sudden transition from coal to wind in Wyoming.  As the coal industry collapses all over the country, Wyoming stands to lose over 10,000 jobs related to that industry. At the same time, in what is now the ironically named Carbon County, Wyoming, the largest wind farm in the country will soon be opening and hopes to provide enough energy to power over a million homes.  That is much more than the state of Wyoming needs, so the operator of the farm, the Anschutz Corporation, is also looking to build a power line to take that excess energy to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Construction on both these large projects is expected to begin within a year. In addition, a Venezuelan company is also looking to build a similar, large wind farm nearby. Even Wyoming's Republican, climate-change skeptic governor is looking to bring more manufacturing work for wind energy into the state.

Wind power will not provide nearly the same amount of jobs that are being lost in Wyoming's coal industry and those coal workers are leaving the industry and the state rapidly.  That job loss is one of the negative side-effects of our transition to green energy, as the fossil fuel industry is much more labor intensive than its replacements. It would be nice if our elected representatives had at least a plan to help these displaced workers transition more easily into other jobs and industries. Because, as Wyoming shows, that transition is coming more and more quickly.

Paul Ryan's Substance Free Antipoverty Plan Outrages Dem. Moore

You've really got to hand it to Gwen Moore, a House Democrat from Wisconsin. She was totally fed up with the constant Republican proposals at the state and federal level that would require people needing some kind of state assistance be tested for drugs in order to be eligible for these programs. Of course, study after study has shown the number of people "caught" by this requirement to be miniscule and that the cost of administering these drug tests in many cases actually outweighs the assistance being offered. And that's beside the fact that is just an additional hassle for the people trying to get the assistance they need.

But apparently the last straw for Moore was Paul Ryan unveiling his latest anti-poverty platform in front of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. Some saw it as an indication that another Ryan proposal was substance-free, but for Moore it was an outrage. As Moore said, when Ryan “stood in front of a drug treatment center and rolled out his anti-poverty initiative, pushing this narrative that poor people are drug addicts, that was the last straw". Moore, a former welfare recipient herself, has decided to introduce a bill that would reportedly require passing a drug test in order to itemize the deductions on the federal tax return.  Of course itemized deductions are used primarily by more wealthy taxpayers and also by homeowners wanting to claim the mortgage interest deduction. Moore's bill basically says to Republicans what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and good for her.  Needless to say, this bill will go absolutely nowhere in the House but it is a nice rejoinder to these needless Republican drug-testing proposals.

Worries About House, SCOTUS Signal End Of Conservative Era

Two unrelated stories today indicate just how quickly the end of the conservative era may be coming. First, National Review and Bloomberg View contributor Ramesh Ponnuru writes that, with Trump at the head of the ticket, Republicans should actively start to worry whether they could actually lose control of the House of Representatives in the upcoming election.  It is generally assumed that the House is secure for the Republicans at least until after the 2020 census and redistricting. Aggressive gerrymandering, the power of incumbency, and their largest majority in the House since before FDR all support that perception. But Ponnuru quotes Henry Olsen, who has studied the Republican electorate for the last two decades, as saying that an eight point Hillary win would translate down-ballot to Democratic control of the House. Even to Republicans, it is looking more and more conceivable, although not necessarily likely, that Democrats could control the White House, Senate, and House after 2016.  You'll know if and when House Republicans truly are concerned about losing their majority when they stop promoting what they will accomplish in the next term but instead campaign merely as a check on a Democratic President and Senate.

The other news item that should also shake conservatives to their core is the report in the Washington Examiner that Clarence Thomas is actively mulling his retirement from the Supreme Court after this year's election.  Should that happen and Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, she may have the opportunity to appoint four justices during her term - replacements for Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, and Ginsburg. In doing so, she would end the conservative domination of the court since end of the Warren era when Richard Nixon was able to appoint three Supreme Court justices in the 1970s. Clinton's appointments would totally shift the dynamic, perhaps setting up liberal domination of the court for the next 30 years.

The demographic changes in this country are already creating an uphill battle for Republicans and, as Trump alienates even more minority voters, that challenge becomes even greater, especially after the 2020 census and redistricting. Without any levers of power in the White House, Senate, House, or Supreme Court, Republicans will have to rely on the filibuster in the Senate and their continued dominance in the state houses in order to stay relevant at all.  It is looking more and more likely that the balance of power is shifting quickly away from conservatives and that progressives will be the dominant force in American politics for the next generation. The question is whether 2017 will be the year the year that the conservative era of the last 30 years ends.

US Open Wrapup

Just want to briefly follow-up my earlier post about the US Open. Dustin  Johnson, besides being a great golfer, is also a rather colorful character, to say the least.  Back in 2014, Johnson took, or was forced to take, a "leave of absence" from golf to resolve some "personal problems", a time-worn catch-all for any number of issues.  Some of those issues were no doubt related to his three failed drug tests - no, not for steroids but for marijuana and cocaine use. In addition, he reportedly had affairs with at least two women who were married to his fellow pro golfers, ending one of those marriages. And he certainly had a reputation for not being the smartest guy around - reporter Rick Reilly described him as being so "dense, light bends around him”. Of course, I doubt we heard any of this during the coverage this week, although I can't be sure as I found the cliché-filled Fox commentary pretty much unlistenable. But, as we saw with Tiger, golf goes out of its way to protect its own.

Speaking of the bad Fox coverage, they also managed to bring in the great Jack Nicklaus at exactly the pivotal moment in the final round where some of the leaders started to drop away and Johnson held his nerve. But their constant focus on how the game and Oakmont had changed since his historic win in 1962 totally overshadowed what was happening on course.

Jason Day did prove Jack's comment that "you can't win a major on Thursday and Friday, but you can sure lose one". His opening round of 76 was just too much to overcome. And Rory McIlroy had the same issue, shooting a first round 77 and missing the cut. Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia were both in good position going into the final round but could not come through. Westwood was horrendous in all phases of the game, shooting 80, and spent the last 8 holes supporting Johnson and making sure Johnson did not let the ridiculous USGA penalty warning cost him this tournament. Sergio actually made some putts but his driver let him down when ne needed it, driving into the church bunkers and taking a bogey just when it looked like he had some momentum.  The good news for Phil Mickleson was that he was just as relevant as Tiger Woods both at the Masters and here at the US Open. The bad news is that Tiger did not play in either of these tournaments due to his continuing back injury while Phil missed the cut in both tourneys.

When all was said and done, it was Dustin Johnson's day and it will be interesting to see what happens now that he has erased that dreaded moniker of one of the "best golfers never to win a major".

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Dustin Johnson Wins US Open, Overcomes His Past, And Saves USGA

Dustin Johnson, the lanky and laconic South Carolinian, won the US Open Golf tournament today and saved the United States Golf Association (USGA) from one of the great brouhahas in sports history.  As I mentioned earlier, Johnson is one of the great drivers and ball strikers on tour but his putting continually lets him down, especially in the majors, in addition to some incredible hard luck. In 2010, after hitting his drive on the final hole of the PGA Championship into a sandy waste area, Johnson grounded his club, not realizing that the area was considered a sand trap.  The two stroke penalty that was assessed kept him from getting into a playoff which Martin Kymer eventually won. And last year, Johnson three-putted on the 72nd hole of the US Open, gifting the victory to Jordan Spieth by one stroke. If ever I guy looked like the stars were aligned against him, it was Johnson.

Fast forward to today where, on the fifth green, Johnson took a couple of practice putts and as he was moving his putter to address the ball, the ball moved.  Johnson did not believe that he had done anything to cause the ball to move and, after a discussion with a rules official, it was agreed that he hadn't and that he should play the ball where it lay.  Subsequently, after reviewing video evidence, the USGA informed Johnson that he may have incurred a penalty for what occurred on the fifth green while he was waiting to tee off on the 12th hole.  In addition, officials also apparently informed his closest competitors that a possible one stroke penalty could be assessed against Johnson after a discussion at the end of the round. This left the field and the viewing audience unsure of what Johnson's score actually was for the remainder of the round.  But Johnson apparently did not believe he incurred a penalty and made sure that it would make no difference if he had.  Playing the last seven holes with utmost confidence, Johnson made all the shots and, more importantly, those short-to-medium range putts when he absolutely had to as the rest of the field succumbed to the pressures of a major and Oakmont. And then finished the round off in style with a superb birdie on number 18 and finishing at 5 under par and a four shot lead over his nearest competitor. Actually, no, make that a -4 finish and a 3 shot lead after the USGA did assess the one stroke penalty.

And that margin of victory saved the USGA from far more abuse than it was already getting over how they handled the situation.  Golf is a game of integrity where players actually do call penalties on themselves.  In fact, Shane Lowry, the leader going into today's play, assessed himself a penalty for a similar situation to Johnson's, but, in that case, Lowry felt his grounding of the club had caused the ball to move. Johnson's firm belief that his actions had not caused the ball to move as he had not even put the putter behind the ball, led him to believe that he should not have been assessed a penalty. And, to a man, almost every other player or former player, agreed with Johnson.  In addition, they also expressed concern in letting Johnson know that he "may" be assessed a penalty while still playing - either assess the penalty or don't, but don't leave it hanging over the poor guy as well as the rest of the field. Rory McIlroy called it "amateur hour from the USGA" and "ridiculous"; Jordan Spieth called it a "joke"; and Brandel Chamblee on the Golf Channel was incredulous as he continually probed the USGA officials to point out what specifically Johnson had done to cause the ball to move. The response was basically that the reason the ball moved was because it was probable that Johnson caused it to move without really explaining how he did it.

The greens at golf's majors are usually incredibly fast, with the grass cut way down and the ground underneath hard as rock. And, at Oakmont as well as other courses, the undulations in the greens can be incredibly steep.  We have seen instances, particularly at the British Open, where a strong gust of wind will actually blow a stationary ball completely off the green.  Under these type of conditions, it is quite possible that the ball will actually move on its own and, in fact, we see this situation occur pretty regularly at almost every major. At some point, the greens will have to slow down or the rules regarding a moving ball will have to be more refined than they are now or this will not be the last time a controversy like this will erupt. Thankfully for the USGA, Johnson made the penalty moot by winning by more than one stroke. But, if things don't change, they may not be so lucky next time.

Natural Weekends - All Osprey, All Weekend

The Ospreys have been circling low overhead all week long.  You can hear them talking to each other with their high pitched screeches as they scour the creek for some good food. So this weekend is dedicated to these magnificent creatures: